Scams in Panama

Tourist-oriented schemes are everywhere, all over the globe, and there’s hardly a traveler in the world who doesn’t have a little shame about that spot on their record where they fell for the trick. 

Even though you might fall victim to a scam at some point in your travels, knowing the most common scams is an excellent start to building a sense of keen awareness for the con artists and thieves among us. We’ve compiled a starter list here of scams to watch out for while you traverse your way through Panama, to get those spidey senses tingling: 

  1. Amazing tour at a discount – this common scam is the poster child for why you shouldn’t be paying up-front for a service. It’s not unusual for a very charming someone to approach you, hocking an amazing tour the next day for an unbeatable price. They ask you to pay in advance, and give you the details of where and when to meet. The problem: when you show up the next day, they stand you up and make off with your cash. You can easily avoid this by researching tour operators in advance to ensure you are only using reputable companies, and only pay in advance if the operator is verified to be legitimate. 
  2. Taxi Problems – taxis in Panama are…complicated. You’ll be using them at your own risk. Those risks include: a) stepping into unauthorized or illegal taxis, and b) being overcharged. Taxis in Panama are not metered which means that there is always the possibility that your driver will quote you an inflated price assuming that you don’t know the going rate. Do yourself a favor and do the research in advance for your area to know what a taxi should cost (your accommodation should be able to advise here). In addition, to avoid the illegal taxis and keep yourself safe, do not hail taxis off the street, preferring to call taxis from reputable companies. 
  3. Fake Cigars – If you’re a cigar-lover, you’ll find that the market in Panama for purchasing both Panamanian and Cuban cigars is huge and plentiful. The problem is that the market for cheap, fake cigars is just as large. Don’t be fooled by higher prices, as the fake sellers will actually often mark up the prices of their fakes to trick you. Research reputable cigar sellers before making your purchase. 
  4. Counterfeit Bills – one of the currencies of Panama is the USD, and the frequency of counterfeit $50 and $100 bills is pretty high. Mostly, fake notes will be distributed by money changers on the street. Do yourself a favor and only change money at banks or real exchange bureaus and steer clear of the sketchy street dealers. 

Remember that scammers tend to take advantage of two things – your ignorance as a tourist, or the ability to catch you off guard when you’re most vulnerable. In general, research your routes and destinations thoroughly, and be cautious of anyone who approaches you unsolicited (need I mention the various “sob story” scams out there, of someone in need, victim of special and dire circumstances, who just needs a little cash? Don’t fall for it).

Financial Safety in Panama

Pick pockets are an unfortunate reality for tourists to many nations all over the world. They target you when you are least suspecting, and strike when you’re too distracted to know what hit you. 

The best way to protect yourself from petty thieves is through vigilance. Always know where your valuables are, keeping any bags zipped up and close to you. In the case of bag slashing, try not to keep any valuables in outside pockets, and never put your wallet in your rear pants pocket. When traveling on public transport, keep your bag in your lap or even strapped to your front if you are not sitting. 

We also recommend splitting up whatever money you have into different secure locations on your body. The reason? If they do get you, they won’t get everything. And only take out as much money as you need for the day – however much you have is also the amount you stand to lose if you fall victim to theft. 

One way to help keep yourself safe is with a money belt. This can either be a real-life belt with inside pouches to keep your money inaccessible, or a large flat pouch worn under the clothes in which you can store other important documents such as your passport. Either way, those pick pockets won’t stand a chance. Be sure to do some research before your trip and consider carefully the best ways to keep yourself and your money secure. 

3 replies on “Scams in Panama”

I’ve found that carrying small bills (US dollars) is a great help. Often at the end of a service, say taxi ride, the driver will quote a fee of $17.00. You give him a $20.00 bill. He has no change. He will take your $20.00 to a local tienda for change, but will wait for you to get tired and walk away. Same with purchases. Never seems to be enough change. So if you have the right amount of bills or coins, no problem.

I got tricked by the counterfeit bills. I wasn’t aware of the prevalence of counterfeit bills and come from a country where they are very rare and so I had never encountered one before.

I gave a twenty dollar bill to a taxi driver and after having given it to him he told me that it was fake and that he wouldn’t take it. I’d never encountered a fake bill before and had got it from the bank and so I didn’t pay much attention and took it back and paid with a different bill. I then tried to use it again and the same thing happened. I realise now what had happened was that my original bill was real but the taxi driver had changed the real bill for the fake bill when I wasn’t paying attention.

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